Friday, September 25, 2009

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow

Not long after reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, I took one of the best courses I have ever taken. At the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. George C. Wright taught a survey course on African American History from 1865 to the present. Despite the fact that it was an early morning class and I was decidedly not a morning person, I don’t think I ever missed a class. I was fascinated by Dr. Wright’s lectures. He taught us aspects of American history—often horrific, violent aspects—that I had never studied in grade school. His lectures opened my eyes like no other course I have ever taken. My recollection is that Dr. Wright assigned more books than my other classes, but I did not mind. Each one was quite different, but I read them all with fascination.

One of the books that Dr. Wright had us read was David Garrow’s detailed biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was quite long, but it was intriguing to learn more about the courageous, imperfect man behind the modern King myth. There were many parts of the book that I enjoyed and found inspiring. To this day, I continue to be awed that in the face of incredibly violent hatred, Dr. King could continue to confidently preach non-violence, as well as to pray for and love those who were oppressing him and his community. Humbly and honestly, I doubt I could muster that kind of love and faith under such frightening circumstances.

One early part of Garrow’s book was particularly influential on my own personal faith journey. In early 1956, as the Montgomery bus boycott dragged on and he was inundated by threats of violence, Dr. King understandably grew frightened and overwhelmed. He had just been released from jail, and was very uncomfortable with his own emergence as the focal point of the boycott. One late night, alone at his kitchen table, he thought seriously about withdrawing from the civil rights movement. He reflected on his relative privilege in growing up in a good family and in the church. He reflected on his great love for his newborn daughter and his wife, as well as his fear that he could lose them at any time due to the threatened violence against him and his family. With his head in his hands, Dr. King prayed aloud to God honestly acknowledging his own weakness. He told God he was faltering and losing his courage. Dr. King later said that at that table he heard a voice he attributed to Jesus; that voice told him to stand up for justice and truth and he would never, never be alone. Dr. King later said that up until that point, his faith had been "inherited" and though it meant something "very real" to him and he was "religious," he had never before had an intimate experience with God. That experience at the kitchen table, however, immediately gave him new strength and courage to continue his leadership in the civil rights movement. Days later, his own house was bombed and his family was nearly killed. But the experience a few days earlier helped give him an incredible peace as he told the angry crowds who came to his home that hate must be met with love. It was apparently a pivotal spiritual experience that steadied his faith for the rest of his life.

I remember that in the context of our class’s study of Malcolm X, Dr. Wright honestly acknowledged to us his own bias with respect to the Nation of Islam. He expressed that as a Christian, Dr. Wright himself had difficulty in fully understanding and appreciating the appeal of Islam. There are several good books about Dr. King, but not all discuss that pivotal spiritual experience in 1956. I’ve often wondered over the years if Dr. Wright’s decision to choose Garrow’s book was at all influenced (consciously or not) by his own faith and the book’s discussion of that 1956 experience.

Genesis 15:1 (New International Version)

“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’"

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